THE man in the group session at first denies he has a problem. ``It's her fault,'' he says, again and again. ``She makes me do it.'' But at home he has a wife or girlfriend sitting with a broken arm and bruised face, battered more than once because he is unable to understand why he shouldn't beat her.
During the last decade, as awareness of the extent of domestic violence has increased in the United States, the number of shelters and assistance programs for women victims has risen steadily.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the number of programs (including shelters) for battered women in the US increased from 1,500 in 1991 to 2,027 in l993.
But there are few programs designed to help men stop battering women. Programs in Duluth, Minn., San Diego, and Cambridge, Mass., have pioneered the effort to offer help for batterers. However, the success rate for changing these men's violent behavior is low.
Low success rate
``Our success rate for long-term abstinence is around 25 percent,'' says David Adams, program director of Emerge, a Cambridge, Mass., counseling and education service for men who batter. It was one of the first such programs in the US. ``Less than half the men complete the program,'' Mr. Adams says.
According to professional counselors and social scientists, the difficulty of changing behavior in some men lies in a number of factors - a tangle of cultural perceptions and the individual experiences of each man.
``The basic problem is that men grow up in what is still a sexist society,'' Adams says, ``where women are supposed to be caretakers, and men can get angry but women can't. Part of the problem now too is a backlash; women are going to work, and there is a power struggle over rights within a marriage or relationship.''
In addition, for years, domestic abuse by men was seen mostly as a private matter by law-enforcement officials and judges, most of whom were men. Men were not held accountable for beating wives. ``Now a man learns from the social institutions that he will get punished if he continues being violent,'' says Fernando Mederos, executive director of Common Purpose, a program for batterers in Boston.
One measure of the success of a batterers program is seen in the safety of the woman involved.
``If the woman is not getting hurt anymore,'' says Kate Cloud, executive director of Respond, an assistance program for battered women in Somerville, Mass., ``that's probably a success. But the men's programs are so new that it's not clear yet what is the definition of success for them.''
Often the woman gains a new sense of freedom because her partner or husband is in the program. He knows she can report any new incidents of violence.
``The program can help break her isolation, her sense that she is as bad as he says she is. She realizes she doesn't have to sit around and get hit anymore,'' Mr. Mederos says.
Researchers and many social scientists say a man who witnessed his mother being beaten when he was a child or was beaten himself as a child is more likely to exhibit violent behavior. From boyhood into manhood, for many of these men, beating is seen as an acceptable expression of emotion.
``The batterers come from all walks of life,'' Ms. Cloud says. ``Harvard professors, doctors, ministers, judges, and men with low incomes have beaten the women we help.'' Other researchers say many batterers are poorly educated with few verbal skills and little knowledge of alternatives to violence.
``I've never met a batterer who could tell me that the reason for their violence had anything other to do with the fact that [the victim] wouldn't shut up, she `wouldn't do what I wanted her to do,' or she was getting punished for something she did,'' says Michael Paymar, who has spent a decade working with batterers in Duluth, Minn. ``We want to move away from the view that these men have psychological defects. A few do, but the man is simply using abuse to control her.''
Blaming the victim
Tom Smith (not his real name) was convinced his former wife caused his violence ``because she couldn't do anything right and wouldn't listen to me,'' he says. On one occasion when he nearly broke her arm, Mr. Smith said it was an accident. ``She kept at me, and I gave her a little shove,'' he says.
Through several years of counseling, he has learned that only he was responsible for his anger. ``I was abused by my father and ridiculed whenever I cried as a boy,'' he says. ``I had a concept of being a man that nearly destroyed my wife and me. The hardest of all for me to learn has been forgiveness'' for his own mistreatment.
The Emerge program in Cambridge begins with an eight-week course. Two-thirds of the men have been mandated by a judge to attend the program because of recent violence.
``Their attitude at the orientation meeting,'' says Maureen Pasik, coordinator of volunteers at Emerge, ``is often, `Ho hum, this is a joke.' '' But they know prison awaits them if they skip too many meetings or resort to violence again.
Battering is a question of control, Adams says. ``Men continue to blame their partners and see themselves as victims,'' he says, ``and they want to control her. We indicate the effects of their violence, such as fear, distrust, constant worry.
``He wants closeness, but he is really driving her away and is always worried that she is going to leave.''
At Emerge, the batterer pays about $20 a session, and Adams says some men spend up to two years in the program. Every eight weeks, and sometimes more regularly, the wife or girlfriend will give an assessment of how the man is doing. ``Violence is not just beating,'' Adams says. ``It is verbal intimidation, shouting, and threatening.''